RHI inquiry: DUP interference in reining in costs was unprecedented, says official

One of Stormont’s most senior civil servants has said that some of the behaviour of senior DUP figures during attempts to rein in and then close the RHI scheme was unprecedented in his experience.

Chris Stewart, who was deputy secretary in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), said that as the green energy subsidy was running out of control in mid-2015 there was clear “resistance” from figures in the DUP to attempts to make the scheme less lucrative.

Chris Stewart told the RHI inquiry that  he believed 'party considerations' were behind the resistance to cost controls

Chris Stewart told the RHI inquiry that he believed 'party considerations' were behind the resistance to cost controls

He told the public inquiry into the cash for ash scandal that the resistance – leading to several months in which hundreds of people piled into the 20-year uncapped subsidy – was communicated to him via Timothy Cairns, the then special adviser (Spad) to the department’s DUP minister, Jonathan Bell.

However, in comments which echo those of other senior civil servants, Mr Stewart said that his understanding was that Mr Cairns was the conduit for resistance emanating from outside the department, rather than the source of it.

“I got the impression that the suggestions that were coming back were ... as a result of party considerations.”

The inquiry has already uncovered that Arlene Foster’s Spad, Andrew Crawford, was advising Mr Cairns in the background, saying that he did not see a problem with the scheme overspending because he believed it was being funded from London.

Mr Stewart said it was not uncommon for a minister to disagree with advice and take time to consider what to do, “but normally you would know what the concern is”.

In this case, there was “a lack of rational argument, or counter-argument, coming back...it seemed to me that what we were getting was not rational or reasoned counter-argument, but resistance...I could see no good reason for that happening and that’s the aspect of it that’s unique”.

In his written statement, Mr Stewart told the inquiry: “The degree of resistance...to proposals that were thought to be modest and proportionate was surprising.

“I have not encountered a similar phenomenon at any time during my career, which includes serving Ministers from five political parties (local and national).”

He told the inquiry: “At the beginning, I put the benign interpretation on it, which was [that] whoever the author was of this resistance or reluctance [was] feeling that officials were being too cautious and were at risk of hobbling a good scheme before it was necessary to do so.

“As the resistance went on, I found it - and still find it - more and more difficult to have such a benign interpretation of it. But I don’t know what the actual reason was for it.”

He said he would have found it less frustrating if the DUP had said “you’re just wrong...you don’t understand the poultry industry”, but that the absence of any such rational counter-argument was “baffling”.

Mr Stewart was also asked about a last-minute request from Mrs Foster that cost controls be delayed after she was lobbied by a boiler installer in her Fermanagh constituency.

He said that his clear recollection of the conversation – which was relayed by Mr Cairns to the permanent secretary, Andrew McCormick – was that “not enough businesses in Fermanagh have been able to apply to the scheme”.

Mr Cairns has said that he does not believe that phrase was used, but Mr Stewart said he recalled it because “it was a rather unusual phrase to use” and a “not very subtle clue as to where the inquiry had come from ... Mrs Foster”. He said the “unusual” request “so late in the day” was “unwelcome”.

Mr Stewart later said that when it came to closing the scheme entirely in February 2016, more obvious outside DUP influence manifested itself.

There had been high level discussions with political and civil service figures in the Department of Finance and the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMdFM).

However, when those contacts - which related to a decision to urgently close the scheme without public consultation - were referred to in a draft ministerial submission to go to Mr Bell, his Spad asked for them to be removed.

Mr Stewart acceded to the removal of the reference to OFMdFM but succeeded in retaining the reference to the Finance Minister, highlighting to the Spad that it was legally necessary to consult him to do what they were doing.

The Spad emailed Mr Stewart to say that “The minister made the decision...and no advice from other ministers or departments played a part in that decision.”

Mr Stewart said he viewed the request as “factually incorrect and rather strange”

Pressed by inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin on why he thought the request was being made, Mr Stewart said “I think there was a desire for the decision that was made to be presented as purely the decision of Minister Bell...the decision was likely to be a matter of some controversy and sensitivity.

“For whatever reason, the conclusion appears to have been drawn that it was desirable to have Minister Bell being seen as the person solely responsible for taking that decision.”

It was put to Mr Stewart that Arlene Foster told Stephen Nolan in her December 2016 interview that the intervention of “others” at that point had saved taxpayers’ money by closing the scheme earlier.

David Scoffield QC asked why therefore there would be any desire not to record those individuals’ role if it was saving public money.

Mr Stewart said: “The benign interpretation of what transpired was that it was desired to give Mr Bell full credit for that.

“A different interpretation might be [that it was] a desire to direct him in his decision on that matter.”

Not long after that exchange, a ministerial submission which Mr Bell had approved by “clearing” was “uncleared” 20 minutes later by figures outside the department.

In an email to Mr Stewart, Mr Cairns said that the ministerial submissions “are in the hands of DUP party officers and will be dealt with by them”.

The Spad said: “Minister cleared and the subs were then pulled to DUP party officers on Friday afternoon.”

Mr Cairns, whose boss, the minister, was legally responsible for taking the decision, then added: I have no idea if they will approve or not”, a phrase which Mr Stewart said concerned him.

The civil servant said that he took the phrase “party officers” to be a reference to DUP Spads because “a literal interpretation of ‘party officers’ didn’t seem to me to make any sense”.

The veteran official said that he could never remember such a situation developing at any other point in his career and was “utterly puzzled” by what was going on.

Last week another senior official said he thought there were “very disturbing reasons” for what had gone on in that period, with the DUP intent to “allow people to make applications before closure”.

In February 2016, Mr Stewart received a request from Mr Cairns to see if it would be possible to contact the Assembly to “bypass the whole process” via some emergency procedure “to enable this to be stopped ASAP”.

Mr Stewart agreed with barrister David Scoffield QC that the Spad appeared to be “approaching panic” at that point and he thought the suggestion was “bizarre – I interpreted it as going further than merely bypassing the [Assembly] committee; it seemed to be an invitation to bypass the entire legislative process”.

Yesterday the inquiry also heard how the department in which Andrew Crawford was a Spad in early 2016 asked for the removal of a reference to the poultry industry driving the spike in applications to the RHI scheme.

Mr Stewart told the public inquiry that he did not know if Dr Crawford had any role in the request – which was successful – but suggested that he might have played a part.

The statement had been made in a draft submission which was to be sent by the DETI minister, Jonathan Bell, to the new finance minister, Mervyn Storey, requesting that he be allowed to use urgent Executive procedures to close the scheme without public consultation.

The submission had said that after a slow start to the scheme, uptake increased steadily during 2015 and “during the autumn of 2015 there was an unprecedented surge in applications.

“This increase relates to one particular technology – biomass and has been attributed to one particular industry’s wholesale uptake of the scheme. This is the poultry industry’s use of RHI for broiler houses.”

That draft submission was sent to the Department of Finance, seemingly for advice on whether it would be acceptable, before being formally sent from one DUP minister to another.

Mr Stewart said at the time that he did not see the need for the change because it was “factually accurate”.

He said that he did not understand why there was a desire to remove the sentence but “it may have been that Andrew Crawford, who would have a better understanding of the agriculture industry than I do, felt that it was actually factually incorrect or inaccurate.

“The suggestion may have come from there – that’s pure speculation on my part.”

Today the RHI Inquiry will hear from two senior Moy Park figures – recently departed chief executive Janet McCollum and senior manager David Mark.

Last week it was revealed at the inquiry that the poultry processor received what in effect seems to have been an indirect subsidy via RHI payments to its farmers.